10 September to 19 September 2017
Having read about the amount of Euros Spain had spent on its new motorways (courtesy of the Bank of Merkle) and having heard rumours of an El Dorado with wondrous treasures beyond belief of man hidden in a torre a few miles south of Bilbao, we hoped we were not tilting at windmills when we set about getting in touch with our contacts to research this El Dorado treasure trove. It transpired that it actually existed and is a private Rolls Royce museum!! So we decided to organise a Foray to take in the Museo de Coches Antiguos y Clásicos en route to the Circuits des Remparts in Angouleme, and after much emailing and offering to pay a donation to their museum fund, they were more than happy for us to visit them and agreed to open on Tuesday for a private guided tour of the museum!!! Before leaving Bilbao we felt that the Guggenheim Museum should be added to the itinerary to add a bit of culture and to keep the ladies on side. This will prove that there is actually culture in our Forays and not just in the yoghurt!!
So, with the ferries and hotels booked, we set about planning the routes which would be incorporated in a Tulip Rally Book – and that kept us quiet for some while!!
I sent many emails to the participants many advising them to carry out the usual document checks and to let me have their current mobile telephone numbers so that we could all keep touch, the most important email being to check over the Healeys for any nagging defects that might have been around for some time. For the technically minded, before we left Blighty I went through the usual maintenance and sorted out the water leak through the wiper wheelboxes and changed them. They had been needing doing for some time as it is one of the most awkward jobs going. There is an old saying “change nothing before you go on a long tour”, and yes, you have guessed it, as soon as it rained (in Spain) the wiper arms kept lifting off the splines. My navigator should be in the Ladies England Cricket team as she was catching flying wiper arms left, right and centre!! When they came my way I dropped the catch, as I was changing gear, steering the Healey, listening to navigator, and not being able to multiskill, thus ended up with only the wiper blade!!! More later.
Day 1 Sunday 10 September; Aboard Cap Finisterre to sail to Bilbao
The hardy and brave souls who had prepared themselves for the rigours of the Bay of Biscay arrived at Portsmouth Dock for the two day crossing. Some of us were diverted into the Border Force area to be thoroughly checked over – car searched, human bodies and luggage scanned. In the Border Force office was a large box with a considerable collection of knifes and other offensive items confiscated that day!! Keep up the good work!!
Once we had all sorted out our cabins for the cruise we ventured down to the restaurant and bar. Yes we all celebrated the start of the Foray in the standard Healey manner!!!!
The Bay of Biscay did not let us down. All the stories you hear are basically true, and as the sea got up, the passengers went down – to their cabins to rest. Fortunately, later the next day the sea state became calm by Biscay standards and we were able to meet up in the restaurant for a very good meal before retiring for a good night’s sleep in preparation for the real adventure which begins in the morning. Foot note: comments overheard – “I am always seasick as soon as I step on board and it takes three days to pass” (shame we are only on a two day cruise)!; will Mr & Mrs Lowsley please come to the car deck as your Healey’s on the loose!!; comment from one of our group “We have been upgraded to an outside cabin” was this an upgrade to a lifeboat? I know it was rough but the sea was not that bad!!!
Day 3 Tuesday 12 September; Arrive Bilbao 07.45
We had a passable breakfast (no proper full English – it is a French ship!) and assembled on the car deck to disembark. (This time I had made sure my boot lid would open and not hold up the whole ferry as per Le Mans 2014.) I had studied the Bilbao dock plan to ensure a smooth transition from ship to shore, detailed instructions were handed out to the fellow travellers and as the first of our group was called to the car deck I asked that they go to the dock gate and the rest of us would laager up with them!!! Oh, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”, and this did not disappoint! Firstly, they had changed the layout of the dock roads so nothing worked out according to the route book, and secondly, the first person called to the car deck was the last off. How bizarre was that! So when all the stray Healeys had been rounded up at the dock gate with no sign of the “first off ferry” Healey in sight, an executive decision was taken to proceed with plan “A”, as we all thought the first Healey was long gone down the road by now. I was surprised by the weather, it was raining!! I remember years ago when I used to fly to Spain with Iberia Airlines, that they always handed passengers each a packamac remembering the saying that “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plane”. The weather varied between wet and very wet so we hauled over at a wayside café and enjoyed breakfast number two. Contact was at long last made with the lost Healey and they had now decided to go directly to the Rolls Royce Museum (OK so I might change my mind about satnavs).
We all arrived safely at the Museo de Coches Antiguos y Clásicos for a stunning tour of this basically private museum. The current owners are grandchildren and close relatives of the Museum’s founder who kept every car he ever owned, never getting rid of any of them, and then started to purchase Rolls Royces as they became available, so ending up with a fabulous collection that includes 2 Rolls Royces that were used by our Queen. The collection is stored in 5 pavilions with the most desirable Rollers in what can best be described as a Baronial Hall. If ever you are in Bilbao at the weekend it is well worth the visit.
We left the Museo de Coches Antiguos y Clásicos at about midday and as the rain had abated we had an improving drive to Bilbao to visit the Guggenheim Museum. I must say at this point that I do not understand modern art. I mentioned this to a person who knows about these things and was informed that that was what modern art was about, so needless to say I still am none the wiser!! The architecture of the building is really stunning and is an art form in its own right, well worth the hassle of fighting through the maze of streets to get to the underground car park. And the car parks are an experience – they have lights above the parking bays, green for empty space and red for full space. How clever was that, planners please copy that over here.
Before we arrived in Bilbao we were treated to the high quality of their motorways and as we left the centre of Bilbao we went straight onto the motorway with tunnels through the mountains to travel on to our hotel for the night at Etxrea. We all enjoyed a meal together in the hotel along with ample quantities of wine and afterwards, in the bar, the bar steward seemed to have lost his measuring gauges and just poured the brandy until I said enough!
Day 4 Wednesday 13 September; Drive to Hotel Le Vieux, Sansguilhem, in the Pyrenees.
An early start was advised as there were 226 miles to be covered to get to our next hotel which would be in France. We had made it this far without any incidents worth recording and long may that continue, I hope I am not pushing my luck!!!
I had planned this drive to be an exhilarating one – motorways with stunning sweeping bridges and viaducts followed by country roads leading to the old mountain pass over the Pyrenees to France. I had been advised that fuel stations on the Spanish motorways were few and far between as they had run out of money to build them, but once we all arrived in France there would be no problems with petrol as every village seems to have a filling station.
The weather could not have been better; the rain clouds had gone and we had wall to wall sunshine. The motorways proved to be very cheap and the quality of the viaducts and bridges was first class!! There seemed to be a motorway service area everywhere on the trip and we were spoilt for choice, We therefore chose one with sun shades for the Healeys, yes sun shades. The problem re lack of service stations was old information as they were nearly two a penny!!
We left the motorway system to travel on the old byroads and as they had run out of money for the building of motorways you would find short sections of completed motorways going nowhere. We passed a deserted mountain village perched on top of what appeared to the stump of an extinct volcano. When we started the climb to the mountain pass the vistas were as I had hoped, absolutely amazing, skiing villages dotted on the mountain side (no snow this time of year) and the peak was reached.
We wound our way down into France through a gorge that made Cheddar Gorge look like a crack in the dried grass of our summer lawns and crossed the foot hills of the Pyrenees to the Logis Hôtel le Vieux.
I must add at this juncture that we could have taken a simpler and shorter route but it would not have been anywhere near as spectacular. We encountered alpine cows complete with cow bells, each bell seeming to have a different tone to it; interestingly, coming from the New Forest, we experience cows in the road on a daily basis and would never ever drive slowly past the rear end of a cow!!!! Unlike some of our city friends.
Now in France, as we approached our hotel, we found that all the local French filling stations had run out of 98 octane fuel and only some had 95 available!
Day 5 Thursday 14 September; Visit to Neolithic caves
The day started with very English weather – it rained, and after the heaviest rain had passed we set out to explore the local Neolithic caves and venture further afield to Lourdes and beyond (only in an earthly way of course). Once again the contest of maps over satnav came to the fore and in all honesty it was a draw. One satnav made it back to the hotel before the map, with another satnav following after the map. The jury is still out!!
The evening meals were typically French – one long table with everyone seated together, and needless to say the food was very good, the wine kept flowing and the company was excellent. David Thorn and I risked the wrath of the French guests by walking through the main restaurant resplendent in our Union Flag waistcoats and instead of insults we received nods of approval and genuine smiles.
Day 6 Friday 15 September; Drive to Angouleme
Once more an early start was advised as we had 223 miles to cover to reach our next hotel which would be in Angouleme. The day dawned fair, we set off in good spirits and followed the planned route which took us along beautiful winding country roads and others as straight as an arrow and all smooth as a billiard table. On through picturesque villages, we stopped for coffee and croissant and as we moved through the town we came to a very unusual sight in France – a traffic jam!!! After waiting for it to clear, which it did not, an executive decision was made to get the hell away from here!! We headed away from the queue to a side road that looked open and satnavs were primed to take us around this log jam. It worked and in no time we were back on the planned route, OK I now admit satnavs do have uses and although I am sure we would have been able to get round the problem using a map it would have taken considerably longer.
The last part of the planned drive to Angouleme was through 13 roundabouts of mixed sizes and I thought only us Brits that went for masses of roundabouts!!!
We had a bit of a rush to get down to the Hotel de Ville to book in for our prebooked Rallye Carnet which due to unforeseen circumstances I was unable to take part in. Happily the Lowsley brothers (not Mr & Mrs Lowesley!!) kindly stepped up to the plate to take over our drive. The organisers are normally not too happy with late changes as there are lengthy bureaucratic procedures to be followed but we were lucky, the lady in charge was very kind and said to the brothers “put the plate and ID bands on and go for it”!!. They use the information on the entry form to inform the spectators at the start about the drivers and the car.
Day 7 Saturday 16 September; Rallye International de Charente
Jo and I spent the day visiting parts of Angouleme that we had not seen on our previous visits and found that the market was open and the provisions on display put our supermarkets to shame. We found little bars in which to rest, one of which had the most delightful custard tart that I had tasted in a long while. As the Lowsley’s Healey started the Rally we heard the commentator announce that David and Jo in their red over white BN6 100/6 were starting. His voice tailed off as he realised that it was now a blue over white MkIII.
Day 8 Sunday 17 September; Race day
The weather was a bit overcast with a threat of rain. The first few races were in the dry and when it came to the Bugatti race, a large black cloud threatened to soak us and perhaps put paid to the race that I really wanted to see.
The rain did indeed come but it did not deter those Bugatti boys and out they came to do battle. They deserve a medal. Not for them a safety car and “Oh it is too wet for us to race”.
They raced and entertained the hardy souls who, while being lashed with the rain enjoyed the spectacle of real racing as it used to be. The rain had cleared enough for the racing to carry on and we had the Group B rally cars do what they called demonstration laps. I hate to think what it would be like if they really went for it!!
The last race of the day was won by an Austin Healey and that was a great ending of an entertaining day at the races for me and many other enthusiasts.
Day 9 Monday 18 September; Depart Angouleme for Hotel Domaine de la Blairie, Saumur
Off we go to Saumur, a 232 mile drive without using motorways. I try to keep away from them because with a group in convoy, if a car gets into trouble you cannot easily go back to help them and also, it saves money! Once again a very pleasant drive through villages to arrive at Saumur Chateau where, as we have done in the past, we stopped for our lunch. We met a fellow Brit who had with him a Swallow Doretti and we all passed a pleasant hour or so. If ever you are in Saumur do visit the Chateau and take your lunch at the café above the car park. The salads are so large they would feed the thousands and still leave some over for the philistines!!!!!
We stayed overnight at our preferred Hotel La Blairie. After washing away the dust and dirt of a 232 mile drive we all assembled for our final meal together.
David Thorn and I once more regaled ourselves in our Union Flag waist coats and much to our surprise we were entertained by a large group of retired French glass blowers, who sang a local Bretagne folk song in our honour. How very pleasing that we are still liked and wanted.
Day 10 Tuesday 19 September
After breakfast the group took a leisurely scenic run back to Caen. Jo and I waved good bye to them and wished them a safe journey as they set off to drive the 175 miles up to Caen to catch the afternoon ferry sailing to Blighty We were to stay for another 4 days or so to explore the Loire Valley and visit the chateaux of the Loire.
During this time I decided to try and sort out the ongoing problem with the wiper arms. It transpired that the new type wheel boxes had a spline longer in length than the original one. This meant that the wiper arm retaining clip would not lock under the new spline. So to overcome this problem we ordered compatible wiper arms from AH Spares (with very good service) to be delivered direct to our hotel and which arrived on time to be fitted. I felt that if we had new wiper arms it would rain again, this transpired to be the fact!